While a report that partying Secret Service agents crashed into a White House barricade may have been somewhat exaggerated, the agency dedicated to protecting the US President has definitely had some problems with drinking.
I actually have a firsthand experience of what it’s like to drink with the President’s security detail. It happened when I was a 23-year-old unpaid intern.
It was 2004 and, at the time, I still had more experience working in a bar than at a newspaper. Still, I was offered a chance by a Los Angeles Times White House correspondent to fill in for the mandated Presidential press pool coverage. Naturally, I dove at the chance.
Diving into the pool
Firstly, here’s a little back story on the Presidential press pool: ever since President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the press has been forced into a somewhat uncomfortable cooperative. Much of the press was caught terribly off-guard by Kennedy’s death in Dallas and didn’t have reporters on the ground. Under the subsequent agreement, competing media outlets share dispatches from a reporter who follows every step of the leader of the free world, even in his (or, by early 2017, possibly her) late hours — just in case anything happens.
On that day in 2004, just a few weeks into my internship, I was the media’s eyes on the President.
I was filling in for the White House correspondent, who had other plans interfere with her pool assignment. Wedging an intern into the motorcade was apparently a headache for the administration; the White House demanded a slew of personal information and had to conduct a background check just to clear me into the areas I would have to visit. It was late January and — if memory serves a decade-plus out — President George W. Bush was heading to Vice President Dick Cheney’s residence at the Naval Observatory for a dinner. I recall being told it was Cheney’s birthday dinner, at the time.
Getting the leader of the free world from ‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ requires a seamless collaboration that makes Katy Perry’s Super Bowl 49 halftime extravaganza look like an elementary school chorus performance: there is the President’s limo, which contained Bush, and armed guards. There was the media limo, containing myself, a US wire service reporter and an international wire service reporter, and another one after that, all containing armed agents. Our cars were also flanked by Washington D.C. police, in cars and on motorcycles. I barely even got a glimpse of the President, which I was told to expect. About 90 minutes into the entire ordeal, our federal entourage rolled through the Observatory gates, POTUS went inside for dinner … and then, I had an idea.
“Man, I’d kill for a beer right now.”
I can’t exactly explain what would compel an unpaid 23-year-old intern to do what I did in the presence of armed guards. I know I was thirsty. The other two wire writers, obviously having worked together for years, were busily chatting each other up, and I was rather bored. So, I turned to a Secret Service agent and said something along the lines of: “Man, I’d kill for a beer right now.”
The agent clearly agreed, and he wasn’t alone. Nobody even bothered to take the other two reporters’ needs into consideration: with a few coded barks into a walkie-talkie, our entire motorcade turned around a few minutes into Dick Cheney’s dinner, and headed to a Mexican restaurant called Cactus Cantina. It was practically within earshot of the Naval Observatory.
After arriving, we were warned to stick to appetizers, in case we had to leave on short notice. I got to work on some Dos Equis with a number of guys trained to kill anything that attempted to come between them and the President. There may have been a round of tequila shots, too, but that idea would have originated from the press, not the guards.
I did what I could to quiz the Secret Service on President George W. Bush. They had clearly been trained to not answer questions about the commander-in-chief. However, I did manage to extract some gossip about the first daughters.
One agent explained that, when out partying in the nation’s capital, the then-20-something Bush twins played a ‘game’ in which they tried to ditch the agents. I did not get the impression that these hijinks were, even once, successful.
Before I could finish my nachos, we got a crisp directive through an agent’s earpiece. One immediately summoned a waitress, we all chipped in for the bill and then it was back to the Observatory.
The uniform appearance of the Secret Service agents prevented me from seeing (or, remembering) whether any of our drivers had a drink, or several. Still, I cannot imagine an entire fleet of vehicles could depart for a Mexican restaurant and kick back with a 60-minute BS-session without White House staff knowing.
Following our detour and drinks, we retrieved POTUS, completed the uneventful return leg of the trip, and went our separate ways. My night ended with me back at the LA Times’ DC bureau sending out a very bland memo to the rest of the press pool covering an already-tame night’s events.
Clearly, nothing got out of control. However, the lesson from this exchange is probably one that should be heeded more by the Secret Service agents who protect President Barack Obama: The overwhelming majority of the time, there’s not a lot going on once the President is off the clock.
But that doesn’t mean that anyone in the presidential security detail ought to behave as if he (or, she) won’t be getting up on time, the next morning, either.
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